Summer Savings! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
Opinion
News Opinion

The curse of Redskins

See if this makes sense to you:

For years, I've argued with certain African-American people about their insistence upon using the so-called N-word which, to my ears, is, inalterably, a statement of self-loathing. They say I don't understand. They say the word no longer means what it has always meant. They say it's just a friendly fraternal greeting.

I say one cannot arbitrarily decide that a word -- especially an old and bloodstained word -- suddenly means something other than what it always has. I say that while language does change over time, it doesn't do so because a few of us want it to or tell it to. And I say that if I call you an "idiot," but say that "idiot" now means "genius," you will be no less insulted.

Does that seem logical? If so, then perhaps you can understand my impatience with people who insist on defending the Washington football team whose nickname is a racial slur.

The latest is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Last week, he responded to a letter from members of the Congressional Native American Caucus, questioning the appropriateness of the name "Redskins." That name, wrote Mr. Goodell, "is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect." The team took the name in 1933, he noted, to honor then-coach William "Lone Star" Dietz, who was reputedly (it is a matter of historical dispute) an American Indian.

"Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group," he wrote. In other words, we have changed the meaning. It no longer means what it has always meant.

As it happens, Mr. Goodell's letter follows a novel -- though ultimately failed -- effort earlier this year by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to ban Indian team names and mascots at primary and secondary schools. The complaint MDCR filed with the Education Department argued that such things are not merely insulting, but damaging. It cited the work of Stephanie Fryberg, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona who has studied the effects of the team names and imagery on Native American students.

She has found empirical proof that those names and imagery lead to lowered self-esteem and sense of community worth among American Indian kids. They also damage aspirations and heighten anxiety and depression.

In other words, seeing their people reduced to mascots is toxic to Indian children. And if the names and images in general are damaging, how much more harmful is "Redskins"?

That name, after all, was never neutral but was, rather, a hateful epithet hurled by people who were stealing from and committing genocide against those they saw as savage and subhuman. So calling a football team the "Washington Redskins" as a way of honoring an Indian makes precisely as much sense as calling a soccer team "The Warsaw K---s" as a way of honoring a Jew.

Fans of franchises bearing Indian names often resist changing them out of sentiment. Owners, meanwhile, are loath to tamper with lucrative trademarks.

That's understandable. But it is also short-sighted.

You can delude yourself all you want. Things are what they are, and as Rick Perry learned in 2011 when he was called to answer for a certain inconveniently named rock, this nation's ugly racial past has a way of poking through the polite lies and evasions we use to prettify history and justify ourselves. So it is with Washington's football team and its nickname.

This is not about honor and even less about "strength, courage, pride and respect." It is rather, about moral integrity, intellectual honesty and the immutable weight of certain words. Whether we choose to acknowledge it, or never do, doesn't change the fact:

"Redskins" is a curse word.

Leonard Pitts, a Maryland resident, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Forced sterilization still happens in America

    Forced sterilization still happens in America

    An investigative report into California's prisons found hundreds of inmates had been sterilized, and many said they were pressured to consent

  • Cincinnati officer indictment: Seeing is believing

    Cincinnati officer indictment: Seeing is believing

    Anyone who might still be harboring doubts about the effectiveness (and necessity) of police body cameras need only watch what spewed out of the camera attached to University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, who was arraigned on a murder charge today. The recording of Officer Tensing,...

  • Closing BCDC [Poll]

    Closing BCDC [Poll]

    Is closing the Baltimore City Detention Center a good idea?

  • Suspensions are the symptom, racism is the cause

    Suspensions are the symptom, racism is the cause

    When my daughter was a junior in high school, she became captain of her softball team. One morning, while she shared some snacks I had brought her with a couple of teammates, a teacher accused her of selling food. He then confiscated my daughter's bag, violating the school board policy that gives...

  • Addressing the work family balance

    Addressing the work family balance

    Whatever you think about Sen. Bernie Sanders and business billionaire Donald Trump, it is exciting to see the chorus of viewpoints being offered by more than a dozen presidential candidates (16 on the GOP side alone). The summer of 2015 is hardly going to be a sleeper.

  • Maryland's regulation SWAT team

    Maryland's regulation SWAT team

    Gov. Larry Hogan has taken a well-worn page from the right-wing handbook and announced the appointment of a panel of business executives to identify state regulations that should be dismantled. It's tempting to dismiss the panel as a sop to his conservative base, but it poses a serious threat to...

  • Connecting communities and schools in Baltimore

    Connecting communities and schools in Baltimore

    A sea change is taking place in Baltimore, and it recently received national recognition. Where it's taking hold, school attendance is up. Chronic absenteeism is down. Student achievement and promotion rates are up. More families are engaged. School climates are being transformed.

  • Releasing Israeli spy [Poll]

    Releasing Israeli spy [Poll]

    Do you believe U.S. assertions that the release of former Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard is not related to foreign policy considerations?

Comments
Loading
79°